Hillbilly America: Do White Lives Matter?
Yesterday I read J.D. Vance’s new book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture In Crisis. Well, “read” is not quite the word. I devoured the thing in a single gulp. If you want to understand America in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy is a must-read. I will be thinking about this book for a long, long time. Here are my impressions.
The book is an autobiographical account by a lawyer (Yale Law School graduate) and sometime conservative writer who grew up in a poor and chaotic Appalachian household. He’s a hillbilly, in other words, and is not ashamed of the term. Vance reflects on his childhood, and how he escaped the miserable fate (broken families, drugs, etc) of so many white working class and poor people around whom he grew up. And he draws conclusions from it, conclusions that may be hard for some people to take. But Vance has earned the right to make those judgments. This was his life. He speaks with authority that has been extremely hard won.
Forgive the rambling nature of this post. I’m still trying to process this extraordinary book.
Vance’s people come from Kentucky and southern Ohio, a deeply depressed region filled with hard-bitten but proud Scots-Irish folks. He begins by talking about how, as a young man, he got a job working in a warehouse, doing hard work for extra money. He writes about how even though the work was physically demanding, the pay wasn’t bad, and it came with benefits. Yet the warehouse struggled to keep people employed. Vance says his book is about macroeconomic trends — outsourcing jobs overseas — but not only that:
But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it. The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man [one of Vance’s co-workers] with every reason to work — a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way — carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.
This is the heart of Hillbilly Elegy: how hillbilly white culture fails its children, and how the greatest disadvantages it imparts to its youth are the life of violence and chaos in which they are raised, and the closely related problem of a lack of moral agency. Young Vance was on a road to ruin until certain people — including the US Marine Corps — showed him that his choices mattered, and that he had a lot more control over his fate than he thought.
Vance talks about how, in his youth, there was a lot of hardscrabble poverty among his people, but nothing like today, dominated by the devastation of drug addiction. Everything we are accustomed to hearing about black inner city social dysfunction is fully present among these white hillbillies, as Vance documents in great detail. He writes that “hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist. This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly.”
This was one of many points at which Vance’s experience converged somewhat with mine. My people are not hillbillies per se, but I come from working-class Southern country white people. Many of the cultural traits Vance describes are present in a more diluted way in my own family. That fierce pride, a pride that would rather see everything go to hell than admit error. This, I think, has something to do with why Southern Protestant Christianity has traditionally been more Stoic than Christian. Real Christianity has as its heart humility. That’s not a characteristic Scots-Irish people hold dear.
Vance talks about the hillbilly habit of stigmatizing people who leave the hollers as “too big for your britches” — meaning that you got above yourself. It doesn’t matter that they may have left to find work, and that they’re living a fairly poor life not too far away, in Ohio. The point is, they left, and that is a hard sin to forgive. What, we weren’t good enough for you?
This is the white-people version of “acting white,” if you follow me: the same stigma and shame that poor black people deploy against other poor black people who want to better themselves with education and so on.
The most important figure in Vance’s life is his Mamaw (pron. “MAM-maw”), Bonnie Vance, a kind of hillbilly Catherine the Great. She was a phenomenally tough woman. She knew how to use a gun, she had a staggeringly foul mouth, she smoked menthols and stood ready to fight at the drop of a hat. And she saved Vance’s life.
Vance plainly loves his people, and because he loves them, he tells hard truths about them. He talks about how cultural fatalism destroys initiative. When hillbillies run up against adversity, they tend to assume that they can’t do anything about it. To the hillbilly mind, people who “make it” are either born to wealth, or were born with uncanny talent, winning the genetic lottery. The connection between self-discipline and hard work, and success, is invisible to them. Vance:
People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown [where Vance grew up]. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.
Vance was born into a world of chaos. It takes concentration to follow the trail of family connections. Women give birth out of wedlock, having children by different men. Marriages rarely last, and informal partnerings are more common. Vance has half-siblings by his mom’s different husbands (she has had five to date). In his generation, Vance says, grandparents are often having to raise their grandchildren, because those grandparents, however impoverished and messy their own lives may be, offer a more stable alternative than the incredible instability of the kids’ parents (or more likely, parent).
Vance scarcely knew his biological father until he was a bit older, and lived with his mom and her rotating cast of boyfriends and husbands. Here’s Vance on models of manhood:
I learned little else about what masculinity required of me other than drinking beer and screaming at a woman when she screamed at you. In the end, the only lesson that took was that you can’t depend on people. “I learned that men will disappear at the drop of a hat,” Lindsay [his half-sister] once said. “They don’t care about their kids; they don’t provide; they just disappear, and it’s not that hard to make them go.”
This is what happens in inner-city black culture, as has been exhaustively documented. But these are rural and small-town white people. This dysfunction is not color-based, but cultural.
I could not do justice here to describe the violence, emotional and physical, that characterizes everyday life in Vance’s childhood culture, and the instability in people’s outer lives and inner lives. To read in such detail what life is like as a child formed by communities like that is to gain a sense of why it is so difficult to escape from the malign gravity of that way of life. You can’t imagine that life could be any different.
Religion among the hillbillies is not much help. Vance says that hillbillies love to talk about Jesus, but they don’t go to church, and Christianity doesn’t seem to have much effect at all on their behavior. Vance’s biological father is an exception. He belonged to a strict fundamentalist church, one that helped him beat his alcoholism and gave him the severe structure he needed to keep his life from going off track. Vance:
Dad’s church offered something desperately needed by people like me. For alcoholics, it gave them a community of support and a sense that they weren’t fighting addiction alone. For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions. When Dad faced financial troubles, his church banded together and purchased a used car for the family. In the broken world I saw around me — and for the people struggling in that world — religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track.
Vance says the best thing about life in his dad’s house was how boring it was. It was predictable. It was a respite from the constant chaos.
On the other hand, the religion most hillbillies espouse is a rusticated form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. God seems to exist only as a guarantor of ultimate order, and ultimate justice; Jesus is there to assuage one’s pain. Except for those who commit to churchgoing — and believe it or not, this is one of the least churched parts of the US — Christianity is a ghost.
About Vance’s father’s fundamentalism, I got more details about what this blog’s reader Turmarion, who lives in Appalachia, keeps telling me about that region’s fundamentalism. Even though I live in the rural Deep South, this form of Christianity is alien to me. When he went to live with his dad for a time as an adolescent (if I have my chronology correct), Vance was exposed for the first time to church. He appreciated very much the structure, but noticed that the spirituality on offer was fear-based and paranoid. “[T]he deeper I immersed myself in evangelical theology, the more I felt compelled to mistrust many sectors of society. Evolution and the Big Bang became ideologies to confront, not theories to understand … In my new church … I heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character trait that a Christian should aspire to have.”
This was yet another reminder of why so many Evangelicals react strongly against the Benedict Option. As I often say, I have no experience of this extreme siege mentality in Christianity. In fact, my experience is entirely the opposite. I believe that some Christians coming out of fundamentalism may react so strongly against their miserable, unhappy background that they don’t appreciate the extent to which there really are people and forces out to “get” them. When you have lived almost all your Christian life among highly assimilated Christians who generally don’t pay attention to these things, their complacency can drive you crazy. But Vance helps me to understand how someone who grew up in its opposite would find even the slightest hint of siege Christianity to be anathema.
One of the most important contributions Vance makes to our understanding of American poverty is how little public policy can affect the cultural habits that keep people poor. He talks about education policy, saying that the elite discussion of how to help schools focuses entirely on reforming institutions. “As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”
Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith. During my junior year of high school, our neighbor Pattie called her landlord to report a leaky roof. The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned, and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing — hence, the leaking roof. Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers, and passed out. The top floor of her home and many of her family’s possessions were ruined. This is the reality of our community. It’s about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life. It’s about children who lose their toys and clothes to a mother’s addiction.
This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper class. And when the dust clears — when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity — there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.
Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs — sometimes the father, sometimes both. At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children; much of the time, the neighbors hear what’s happening. A bad day is when the neighbors call the police to stop the drama. Our kids go to foster care but never stay for long. We apologize to our kids. The kids believe we’re really sorry, and we are. But then we act just as mean a few days later.
And on and on. Vance says his people lie to themselves about the reality of their condition, and their own personal responsibility for their degradation. He says that not all working-class white hillbillies are like this. There are those who work hard, stay faithful, and are self-reliant — people like Mamaw and Papaw. Their kids stand a good chance of making it; in fact, Vance says friends of his who grew up like this are doing pretty well for themselves. Unfortunately, most of the people in Vance’s neighborhood were like his mom: “consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
As I said earlier, the two things that saved Vance were going to live full time with his Mamaw (therefore getting out of the insanity of his mom’s home), and later, going into the US Marine Corps. I’ve already written at too much length about Vance’s story, so I won’t belabor this much longer. Suffice it to say that as imperfect as she was, Mamaw gave young Vance the stability he needed to start succeeding in school. And she wouldn’t let him slack off on his studies. She taught him the value of hard work, and of moral agency.
The Marine Corps remade J.D. Vance. It pulverized his inner hillbilly fatalism, and gave him a sense that he had control over his life, and that his choices mattered. This was news to him. Reading this was a revelation to me. I was raised by parents who grew up poor, but who taught my sister and me from the very start that we were responsible for ourselves. Hard work, self-respect, and self-discipline were at the core of my dad’s ethic, for sure. There was no more despicable person in my dad’s way of seeing the world than the sumbitch who won’t work. I doubt that I’ve ever known a man more willing to do hard physical labor than my father was. Knowing what he came from, and knowing how any progress he made came from the sweat of his brow and self-discipline on spending, he had no tolerance for people who were lazy and blamed everybody else for their problems. This is true whether they were poor, middle class, or rich (but especially if they were rich).
Anyway, Vance talks about how the contemporary hillbilly mindset renders them unfit for participation in life outside their own ghetto. They don’t trust anybody, and are willing to believe outlandish conspiracy theories, particularly if those theories absolve them from responsibility.
I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life. I don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.
Hence the enormous popularity of Donald Trump among the white working class. Here’s a guy who will believe and say anything, and who blames Mexicans, Chinese, and Muslims for America’s problems. The elites hate him, so he’s made the right enemies, as far as the white working class is concerned. And his “Make America Great Again” slogan speaks to the deep patriotism that Vance says is virtually a religion among hillbillies.
Trump doesn’t come up in Vance’s narrative, but in truth, he’s all over it. Vance is telling his personal story, not analyzing US politics and culture broadly. It’s also true, however, that the GOP elites set themselves up for their current disaster, by listening to theories that absolved themselves of any responsibility for problems in this country from immigration and free trade (Trump is not all wrong about this).
The sense of inner order and discipline Vance learned in the Marine Corps allowed his natural intelligence to blossom. The poor hillbilly kid with the druggie mom ends up at Yale Law School. He says he felt like an outsider there, but it was a serious education in more than the law:
The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. … It was at this meal, on the first of five grueling days of [law school job] interviews, that I began to understand that I was seeing the inner workings of a system that lay hidden to most of my kind. … That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game.
What he’s talking about is social capital, and how critically important it is to success. Poor white kids don’t have it (neither do poor black or Hispanic kids). You’re never going to teach a kid from the trailer park or the housing project the secrets of the upper middle class, but you can give them what kids like me had: a basic understanding of work, discipline, confidence, good manners, and an eagerness to learn. A big part of the problem for his people, says Vance, is the shocking degree of family instability among the American poor. “Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.”
Vance is admirably humble about how the only reason he got out was because key people along the way helped him climb out of the hole his culture dug for him. When Vance talks about how to fix these problems, he strikes a strong skeptical note. The worst problems of his culture, the things that held kids like him back, are not things a government program can fix. For example, as a child, his culture taught him that doing well in school made you a “sissy.” Vance says the home is the source of the worst of these problems. There simply is not a policy fix for families and family systems that have collapsed.
I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. … But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.
Voting for Trump is not going to fix these problems. For the black community, protesting against police brutality on the streets is not going to fix their most pressing problems. It’s not that the problems Trump points to aren’t real, and it’s not that police brutality, especially towards minorities, isn’t a problem. It’s that these serve as distractions from the core realities that keep poor white and black people down. A missionary to inner-city Dallas once told me that the greatest obstacle the black and Latino kids he helped out had was their rock-solid conviction that nothing could change for them, and that people who succeeded got that way because they were born white, or rich, or just got lucky.
Until these things are honestly and effectively addressed by families, communities, and their institutions, nothing will change.
Is there a black J.D. Vance? I wonder. I mean, I know there are African-Americans who have done what he has done. But are there any who will write about it? Clarence Thomas did, in his autobiography. Who else? Anybody know?
Vance’s book sends me back to Kevin D. Williamson’s stunning National Review piece on “The White Ghetto” — Appalachia, he means. This is the world J.D. Vance came out of, though he saw more good in it that Williams does in his journalistic tour. It also brings to mind Williamson’s highly controversial piece earlier this year (behind subscription paywall; David French excerpts the hottest part here) in which he said:
It is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about “globalists” and — odious, stupid term — “the Establishment,” but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that. Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.
Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
I criticized Williamson at the time for his harshness. I still wouldn’t have put it the way he did, but reading Vance gives me reason to reconsider my earlier judgment. Vance writes from a much more loving and appreciative place than Williamson did (though I believe Williamson came from a similar rough background), but he affirms many of the same truths. If white lives matter — and they do, because all lives matter — then sentimentality and more government programs aren’t going to rescue these poor people. Vance puts it more delicately than Williamson, but getting a U-Haul and getting away from other poor people — or at least finding some way to get their kids out of there, to a place where people aren’t so fatalistic, lazy, and paranoid — is their best hope. And that is surely true no matter what your race.
The book is called Hillbilly Elegy, and I can’t recommend it to you strongly enough. It offers no easy answers. But it does tell the truth. I thank reader Surly Temple for giving it to me.
UPDATE: Hello Browser readers. Glad to see traffic from one of my favorite websites. If you found this piece interesting, I strongly encourage you to take a look at the subsequent interview I did with J.D. Vance about the book. I posted it last Friday, and it has gone viral. This past weekend was a record-setting one for TAC; Vance’s interview was so popular it crashed our server. Take a look at the piece and you’ll understand why. This extraordinary young writer is tapping into something very, very deep in American life right now. I’ve been getting plenty of e-mails from liberals saying how much they appreciated the piece, because Vance tells difficult truths that both liberals and conservatives need to hear.